Thursday, July 30, 2009

After arrests, Orthodox groups stress importance of obeying the law

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- In the wake of last week’s arrests of several prominent rabbis, some Orthodox leaders are working to ensure that their institutions are following the letter of the law.

At a Chabad-Lubavitch regional conference over the weekend in northern Virginia, several of the Chasidic movement’s senior rabbis stressed the importance of obeying the law, according to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch.

The movement's late spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "clearly instructed all emissaries of Lubavitch that all activities, particularly those undertaken in the name of the movement, must be lawful,” Shemtov said. “The Talmud clearly rules that the law of the land, especially in the case of a government which allows Jews to live freely, takes on the force of Jewish law.”

In New York, a leader of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group bringing together several Chasidic and non-Chasidic communities, helped organize a meeting to stress the same theme. The meeting was to feature two prominent rabbis and two well-known New York lawyers, Benjamin Brafman and Jacob Laufer.

The meeting was announced in an e-mail sent out by Agudah’s executive vice president, Rabbi David Zweibel, to the organization’s supporters. Titled “An Urgent Gathering,” the e-mail said the meeting would be “focusing on the timeless (but also all too timely) theme of ‘Vi'asisa hayashar vi'hatov,’ or making sure one is doing ‘the good and honest thing.’ "

“In the wake of recent headlines and front-page photographs that made every feeling Jewish heart ache, it is even more timely for us to take a good, hard look at our obligations to our fellows, to our society, to our government,” Zweibel said in the e-mail, adding that “I am confident that you realize how vital it is that we hear words of mussar [taking stock] and chizuk [reinforcement], and that we learn to distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d'malchusa [the law of the land] and conduct that does not.”

The meeting comes less than a week after five New York and New Jersey rabbis were arrested July 23 on charges of money laundering. Authorities say the rabbis accepted large checks made out to tax-exempt charitable organizations associated with their synagogues, usually keeping 10 percent of the money and returning the rest to the donor in cash.

The charges somewhat echo a case involving the spiritual leader of the Spinka Chasidic sect in December 2007, in which religious leaders in New York and Jewish businessmen in Los Angeles were charged with soliciting “tens of millions of dollars” in contributions to their charities while secretly refunding as much as 95 percent of the donors' money, allowing the contributors to claim improper tax deductions.

The head of the Spinka group, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Weisz, agreed to plead guilty to the charges earlier this month.

A criminal defense lawyer familiar with the Jewish community said he doubted that the New Jersey and Spinka cases signaled any kind of targeting or trend among federal prosecutors of Orthodox Jewish groups.

“I think it's a coincidence,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be identified. The cases are “instances of somebody trying to reduce their own sentence” by telling the government what he knew about other possible criminality, he said.

In both scandals, a defendant charged with serious financial crimes unrelated to the Jewish community became a confidential informant for the government, wearing a wire to implicate rabbis.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman declined comment on both affairs and referred a reporter to the individual U.S. attorneys offices that brought the charges.

The Orthodox Union declined comment on the New Jersey scandal.

One expert said the best ways for charities to avoid getting caught up in any trouble with the law are pretty basic.

First, “stick to what the mission really is” of the charity and don't start freelancing, said Kenneth Ryesky, an attorney who teaches tax and business law at Queens College in New York.

One rabbi who did not wish to be identified said he periodically gets a request from a potential donor similar to what the Spinka rabbis were allegedly doing -- accepting a large check and returning most of the money in cash to the donor -- and always rejects the offer immediately.

That's the best reaction, Ryesky said.

“If it doesn't pass the smell test," he said, "don't have anything to do with it.”


No, I don’t, but you’ll see what I mean in a few paragraphs.)

“Thou shalt not study Torah,” beginning at midday today, erev Tisha b’Av, as part of our mourning for the Beit haMikdash.

As the gemara (Taanit 30a) explains, “One may not learn Torah, Neviim or Ketuvim, or study mishnah or talmud, midrash, halachot or aggadot.” There are permitted exceptions, principally for sad topics and study related to mourning, but the overall theme is that Torah learning is a joyous experience, so we don’t engage in it on Tisha b’Av.

[I wonder if this law is not also related to the aftermath of the Golden Calf. Per the midrash, when the Jews received the Torah they also received special crowns. After the Golden Calf, HaShem instructed them, “Remove your crown” (Shemot 32:5-6), apparently a reference those crowns. “You have sinned; you don’t deserve to don the glory of Torah.”]

Many of us take this law lightly; how could Gd punish a Jew for studying Torah?

And we have other such limitations on Torah study. We are not to think about Torah in the bathroom, or when inappropriately dressed. We are taught that it is sinful to study Torah without first reciting birchot hatorah, the special blessings for Torah study. And for all of them, there are those who ignore them; how could Gd punish a Jew for studying Torah?

It reminds me of the Jew who studies the parshah every Shabbat by reading divrei torah on, or, or

Were this Jew not reading divrei torah on-line, he would likely be engaged in some other activity that I consider desecration of Shabbat – shopping at the mall, driving to a park, talking on the phone, flipping channels on TV. In that sense, it’s better that he read divrei torah, I suppose.

Again: How could Gd punish a Jew for studying Torah?

I suppose it comes down to our sense of ownership of Torah, our feeling that we have a certain right to evaluate and set priorities among its various imperatives. A mitzvah is only a mitzvah when the Torah defines it as a mitzvah.

Perhaps a good Tisha b’Av example of this is in the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story (Gittin 55b-56a, and see also the version in Eichah Rabbah), when the sages are seated at a feast and Bar Kamtza is embarrassed by the host.

The sages don’t protest, because they think it’s better to be humble (see the Eichah Rabbah version, especially). But the Torah’s priority is to protect Bar Kamtza, who is being attacked.

And perhaps the same thing happened with the rabbis in the Brooklyn/New Jersey scandal of this past week. Maybe they thought they were helping generate tzedakah money, maybe they had some other justification for committing these financial crimes. [I am NOT justifying it; my point is that people who set their own priorities get into trouble.]

When we set our own priorities, we get skewed results and rationalizations. Better to hold off on Torah (other than the permitted parts) during Tisha b’Av, remove the crown, absorb the intense reality of exile, and get started on rebuilding the Beit haMikdash.

[Of course, the big problem is when skewed-view human beings try to define the Torah’s objective priorities… implementation is harder than theory…]

Chabad Tries Court to Get Rabbis' Books Back From Russia

The bell rang on June 26 to mark the end of the latest round, but no one can say when the fight between the Chabad-Lubavitch sect and the Russian Federation will end. When one side is trying to recover its religious legacy and the other is defining its national heritage, throwing in the towel is not an option.

At issue is an irreplaceable library of some 12,000 rare books, 381 manuscripts and 25,000 pages of handwritten rabbinical teachings that were once held by the Chabad-Lubavitch head rabbis but were left behind when the rabbis fled for safety during the world wars. The collection now sits in the Russian State Library and the Russian State Military Archive. Chabad is suing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to get it back. Last month, after nearly five years of litigation, Russia said it would no longer participate in the case.

"They have decided that, after they lost the first couple rounds, they're taking their marbles and going home," said Nathan Lewin, one of the lawyers representing Chabad.

But Lewin suggests his client isn't likely to give up so quickly. What's four years when -- to quote Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who has led Chabad's efforts to recover the library -- you're engaged in a "spiritual quest"?


Today, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is one of ultra-orthodox Judaism's most influential sects and is based in New York. As for the library, Cunin, who is head of Chabad-Lubavitch on the West Coast, called it "the essence, the soul [of Chabad]. These books are steeped with the tears of the rebbes who wrote them."

A century ago, the Lubavitchers were based in Russia. During the Communist Revolution, Bolsheviks seized the library of their leader, the fifth rabbi, who had left it in a Moscow warehouse while escaping World War I. Two decades later, the sixth rabbi was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Poland, leaving behind his own library. By the war's end, that library had been looted by Hitler's troops, then taken again by Soviet soldiers, who carted it back to Moscow, there to join the fifth rabbi's collection.

Like so many things that disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, the fate of the library was not clear. At one point, Soviet authorities said it had burned in an accidental fire. But the library resurfaced in 1988, and Chabad began negotiations to try to have it returned. Over time, it enlisted political figures such as then-Secretary of State James Baker III and then-Vice President Al Gore in its efforts to cajole Russia's political leaders. Despite several promises and the return of eight token books, the library has stayed put.

In court documents, Russia has said it considers the library a part of its cultural heritage -- after all, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement began there, and the sect is alive in Russia today. This dispute parallels an ongoing debate about Russia's World War II legacy. The country has been notoriously slow, and often outright unwilling, to return the millions of cultural treasures it seized from Germany and other territories it occupied. These so-called "trophies" the Russian government sees as compensation for the horrors Russia suffered at the hands of the Nazis. It has promised to review its collections for art that originally belonged Jewish families, but has yet to do so.

"I really don't think that they're intent on keeping the Jewish looted art, but I don't think there's any political will to move it along or the resources to do it," said Stuart Eizenstat, a partner at Washington's Covington & Burling who has been deeply involved in Holocaust restitution efforts.

On the same day Russia officially abandoned the Chabad case, it sent a delegation to Prague, Czech Republic, to join 48 other countries discussing issues of World War II restitution. Each country committed itself to a set of standards for returning artifacts belonging to Holocaust victims. According to Eizenstat, who led the U.S. delegation, Russia lobbied for language that would have let it argue against handing back much of its wartime loot. (Eventually, Eizenstat said, the conference allowed a more "harmless" version of the clause.)


Chabad launched its U.S. litigation to retrieve the rabbis' library in November 2004, suing Russia in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, where it was represented byBingham McCutchen partners Seth Gerber and Marshall Grossman. The case hinged on a section of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that permits individuals to sue foreign countries over property seized in violation of international law. Under the statute, the FSIA suit was removed to Washington, where Nathan and Alyza Lewin of Lewin & Lewin joined the case, along with Howrey partner William Bradford Reynolds. The case is before Chief Judge Royce Lamberth.

Initially, Russia sought to dismiss the suit on grounds that it had never violated any international conventions. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with Chabad in June 2008.

In January of this year, Russia's lawyers at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey -- including James Murphy, Alan Briggs and Jeremy Dutra in the Washington office, who declined comment -- asked to be removed from the case. They had lost contact with their client, they told the court, and weren't being paid. In March, they withdrew the request, explaining only that they had "reached an accommodation" with their client.

Meanwhile, Chabad discovered that pages of the handwritten teachings were turning up on the Israeli black market, where they were selling for $10,000 to $20,000 per page, according to Nathan Lewin. Russia denied that the pages had come from the military archive, but Lamberth issued an injunction on Jan. 27 ordering Russia to step up its efforts to protect the contents of the library.

The case seemed to be moving slowly toward discovery until this month, when Russia finally stepped out.

"The Russian Federation views any continued defense before this Court and, indeed, any participation in this litigation as fundamentally incompatible with its rights as a sovereign nation," its filing stated, adding that Chabad was free to press its case in the Russian courts. However, if the U.S. government chose to intervene again, Russia wrote, the United States should stick to "diplomatic channels."

"If they had wanted to take that position, they should have taken it without trying to test their legal arguments in the courts," responded Lewin.


Ordinarily, when countries are sued under the FSIA, they decide at the start whether to defend themselves or simply default and let the plaintiff try to collect a judgment. But Russia's move is not unprecedented, said Steven Perles of the Perles Law Firm in Washington. In politically charged suits, countries sometimes attempt a legal defense through a motion to dismiss and then bail out of the litigation before the case can go to discovery or be tried on the merits, said Perles, a specialist in FSIA cases. He pointed to suits over terrorist attacks involving Libya and Sudan as examples.

"It's just smart litigation tactics on their part," Perles said. If Russia had managed to persuade the court to dismiss Chabad's case, he noted, it could have used the ruling as a buffer against diplomatic pressure down the line.

With Russia gone, Chabad will still be free to pursue a judgment in U.S. district court. But Russia might not have much to worry about, said Crowell & Moring partner Stuart Newberger, who co-chairs the Washington firm's international dispute resolution practice. Even if Chabad were to win an award in federal court here, he said, it could collect only by petitioning a Russian court.

"If they want to enforce the judgment, they're going to have to go to Moscow, and that may be why the Russians decided to pull from the case," Newberger said.

Nathan Lewin disagrees with that interpretation of the FSIA. He said he believes that Chabad could enforce a judgment by attaching Russian assets in the United States.

Not that Chabad wants those assets. "The reason we went to the courts was that we saw from the diplomatic efforts that we were running up against a stone wall," Lewin said. Any assets his client claimed, he said, would serve as leverage to pressure Russia to, at long last, release the library.

Jewish Group Seeks Default Judgment Against Russia

A Jewish organization asked a federal judge for a default judgment against Russia today, following the country's exit from a long-running lawsuit over a priceless religious library.

Lawyers for Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the world’s largest sects of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, filed a motion today at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia accusing Russia of flaunting U.S. law by ducking out of the suit. On June 26, Russia filed a notice informing the court that it would no longer participate in the litigation, which it called “incompatible with its rights as a sovereign nation.”

Russia, represented by a team from Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, had already litigated the case through a motion to dismiss and an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which ruled that all of Chabad’s claims could go forward.

“[Russia’s] refusal to accept the decision of the Court of Appeals and their disobedience of this Court’s orders and contempt for this Court’s processes warrant the entry of a default,” Chabad’s filing states.

Chabad’s lawyers — Nathan Lewin and Alyza Lewin of Lewin & Lewin, Marshall Grossman and Seth Gerber of Bingham McCutchen, and William Bradford Reynolds of Howrey — said they would seek a default shortly after Russia abandoned the suit. Even, if they convince Judge Royce Lamberth to rule in their favor, collecting on the judgment could be difficult. It unclear they will be able to seek Russian assets in the U.S., or if they will have to seek compensation in a Russian court.

See the National Law Journal’s last story on the suit.

RELIGION - Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis visiting Guam

Two young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis are visiting Guam from July 28 to Aug. 17 as part of a community outreach program.

Rabbis Chesky Klein and David Loksen will be distributing videos, brochures, books, Shabbat candles, mezuzahs (a religious scroll placed on doorways) and will be working closely with the local Jewish community, according to a news release. The pair will teach classes, including one on Kabbalah, and host Shabbat dinners.

The two rabbis are part of a worldwide program sometimes referred to as “the Lubavitch Summer Peace Corps,” in which some 400 young rabbis and senior rabbinical students visit thousands of locations worldwide, including countries like Bolivia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, Fiji, Guadeloupe, Ireland, Portugal, Sri Lanka and Uruguay.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Chabad rabbi gives Senate invocation

Rabbi Shea Harlig, director of Chabad of Southern Nevada, opened up Senate proceedings on June 25th with an invocation to honor the 15th anniversary of the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The invitation came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
After saying that he came in the spirit of the seven Noahide laws, Harlig said, "I beseech you, Almighty G-d, to grant renewed strength and fortitude to all who protect, preserve and help further these ideals so essential to the dignity of the human spirit. Please grant that our beloved Rebbe's vision of a world of peace and tranquility -- free of war, hatred and strife -- be realized speedily in our days.
A transcript of Harlig's prayer can be read here, and below is the video of his appearance in the Senate.

Transcript from
"Almighty G-d, the members of this prestigious body, the United States Senate, convene here in the spirit of one of the seven Noahide Laws which were set forth by You as an eternal universal code of ethics for all of mankind.
"These seven laws are: To worship You alone; never to blaspheme Your Holy Name; not to murder; not to commit adultery or any such aberration; not to steal or be deceitful; not to be cruel to any living creature; and that every society be governed by just laws which are based in the recognition of You, O G-d, as the Sovereign Ruler of all people and all nations.

"On this twenty-fifth day of June, 2009, which corresponds to the Third Day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, we are 15 years - to the day - from the physical passing of our esteemed spiritual leader, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, who consistently extolled the virtues of this great land as a "Nation of Kindness".
"I beseech you, Almighty G-d, to grant renewed strength and fortitude to all who protect, preserve and help further these ideals so essential to the dignity of the human spirit. Please grant that our beloved Rebbe's vision of a world of peace and tranquility - free of war, hatred and strife - be realized speedily in our days.
"G-d Bless this hallowed body. G-d Bless our troops who stand in defense of this great land. G-d Bless the United States of America."
"We, the citizens of this blessed country proudly proclaim this recognition and our commitment to justice in our Pledge of Allegiance "One Nation - Under G-d - with Liberty and Justice for All." "Grant us Almighty G-d that those assembled here be aware of Your presence and conduct their deliberations accordingly. Bless them with good health, wisdom, compassion, and good fellowship.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The search for Jews in Ireland

Many New Yorkers buy airline tickets to Ireland to find long lost relatives and connect with their heritage on the Emerald Island. But for two young men Baruch Davidson and Pinny Raitman the goal was not to find family in the strict sense, but to connect with people in the faith.

Davidson and Raitman, both in their mid-twenties, are rabbinical students in a large Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism: Chabad. Over the past 60 years, Chabad has been sending pairs of young rabbis to far-flung points of the globe. The Roving Rabbis program aims to provide hands-on experience to rabbis in-the-making whose assignment is to “spread the light of the Torah,” seeking out unaffiliated Jews and helping them find a way back to their faith, a mission that is not a priority for most mainstream Jews.

But finding Jews in Ireland was not an easy task. Of Ireland’s 4.4 million people, only 2,000 are Jewish. Once on the island Davidson and Raitman walked off the beaten paths. They rented a car and instead of large cities, where the large communites are to be found, they opted for small towns and tiny villages in their search for Jews. “We would go to any local stores or pharmacies and asked ‘Do you know any Jews here?” said Raitman. “They would get all excited,” he remembers, “yes we know this lady, they said, lets call her. So they went to the phonebook and started to calling up people. We found people who were off the radar,” maps were of no help, “we had to ask them for their exact directions.” Here are some of the Jews they met:

Rebecca Grinblat is an Australian native who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and married to a Catholic Irishman. It was not until she moved to Limerick that shelearned to make hamentashen – triangular poppy and prune filled pastries – a special holiday treat. In Melbourne there was no need to worry about holiday pastries, which could be conveniently purchased in one of the many local kosher bakeries. In Limerick, however, she has to bake it herself as the nearest kosher bakery is 2.5 hours away by train to Dublin.

Gerard Hunt, a Dublin-born businessman said it was not a long ago that he began wearing his kippah in Wexford, where he is one of the four Jews of 10,000 people. He said he feels isolated from other Jews and that the only way to learn about his religion was to take a-year-long web course.

Eva Coombes grew up in a Jewish community in France but today drives an hour from Castleroy, a leafy suburb of Limerick, to the synagogue in Cork, the closest point to celebrate and pray together with fellow Jews.

Grinblat, Hunt and Coombes were just the kind of people the young rabbinical students were hoping to meet. The Irish, famous for their friendliness towards strangers, gave the Americans a warm welcome. “They were open and helpful,” said Davidson. Some families had even kept guest books in which they found the signature of Chabad rabbis who had come before them stretching back 50 years. At some places all they had was a chat. “We are not going to impose religion in a cunning way, to get people more religious,” said Raitman “either you are Jewish or your are not. We are not making anyone Jewish. We are there to raise the Jewish spark.”

At other places, like in the Limerick region, they managed to bring a small company of nine Jews together. “They put me in contact with another woman Eva and a man called Eric who also lives nearby,” said Grinblat who became friends with Coombes through the Chabad mission. “People in our group all have non-Jewish partners but we celebrate the holidays together, which is a nice way to maintain traditions in a small community.”

The rabbis of the local synagogues share the outreach mission of the roving rabbis but their congregations do not have the resources to engage congregants in the outside areas. “The only way is to send out a team to the field,” said Rabbi Zalman Shimon Lent of the Orthodox synagogue in Dublin. “If somebody integrates new people into the community, it remains strong,” Davidson said, who, together with Raitman, collected contact information from everyone they visited during the trip. Despite the low population figures, Rabbi Lent is optimistic though realistic about the future of Judaism on the island. “A lot depends on the economic situation of the country - which at the present is in a difficult state,” he said. As for now both roving and rooted rabbis work hard not to lose a single soul from their flock.

Grinblat, who hosted a dinner for the rabbis at her Limerick home attended also by Eva Coombes, said she looked forward to the annual visits. “No matter what else is going on, once a year Chabad is going to come and chat and should you need something they would get it for you and you do not feel you lost connection.” Though the rabbis did not accept the food from her “half-kosher kitchen” they neither attempted to convince her to change her life.

Hunt had the rabbis over in his Wexford shop, where he experienced what he called a spiritual awakening. “Their effort had an effect on me,” he said, “now I am celebrating Purim and Hanukkah and taking online study classes on Judaism.”

Coombes enjoyed discussing points of religion that “I could not discuss with the people among whom I live at the present,” she said adding, “I think outreach is the best thing since handmade Matza.”

The rabbis brought a suitcase of Jewish books and religious objects like mezuzahs, but what turned out to be the most useful thing was ping-pong knowledge. The rabbis recalled meeting Richard, a secular Jew they met in West Cork who initially avoided them and only for his friend’s insistence did he finally agree to join a table tennis game. Raitman, who is originally from Australia where he would participate in table tennis competitions, was happy to play.

“We drove down to a little community center in the middle of nowhere, because Richard was part of a local team,” Raitman said. “We played for hours, which was a great occasion to connect with someone non-religious. We spoke about Jewish things, experiences that he had had as a child that came up in the conversation, which in itself was something special to him. I realized that any talent a person has can always be used to create bridges with another person.”